I have arrived on a beautiful Asian coastline, having finished a week home with wife and family. It was a whirl wind of lunches, dinners, and joyful gatherings. Time with loved ones always seems to pass much too quickly. While strolling down a stretch of crowded beach, I reflect on relationships left behind, new ones formed and the ones yet to be created. I was supposed to meet the Care Cambodia team as soon as I landed but do to a national holiday I was advised to please take a couple days and explore the country. Not something I was expecting but definitely a welcome change.
My heart rate quickens with anticipation as I watch a picturesque Indochine sunset. Fine grains of beautiful tan sand stick to warm damp skin. Working its way between toes as they ceremoniously dig away allowing fleeting feelings of a coastal home more than 9000 miles away. The gentle waters of Thailand bay lap continuously against a beach bar lined shore. Remixed western techno thumps incessantly in the background, overpowering the calming sound of crashing waves. In the distance tropical islands beckon whilst floating in a turquoise sea reminiscent of a Caribbean postcard. Tomorrow I will watch this same scene (only much quieter) anchored off one of those small islands in the distance. It’s been far too long since my last peek below the waves and I can hardly wait another minute. This adventure to Cambodia’s coast was a last minute decision and one that I will not soon regret. I have booked an overnight SCUBA tour and for now my most immediate concern is sleep while wrestling with lingering jet lag from the previous days travel. After a long evening of tossing and turning the sun finally rises and I excitedly make my way to the dive shop. Here I am greeted warmly by a smiling Cambodian born, California raised Dive Master named Max. He returned four years ago to discover his roots. The rickety boat making this two hour voyage has seen better days but looks sturdy enough and Max’s laid back vibe immediately puts me at ease.
Before long we drop anchor and gear up for our first dive. Once the plunge is made everything changes. Warm water envelops my body. Bubbles and breath dominate the senses, like being placed into a form of forced meditation. I cherish every submerged moment, but (like many developing countries) it is a “beautiful mess”. Much of the bay’s reef and wildlife have been decimated by illegal and irresponsible fishing practices up to and including the use of dynamite. We float past and explore the shards and remnants of many previously vibrant coral depositories. However within the devastation there is hope. New polyps are clinging and clawing their way back and given appropriate time and protection the coral will return. Life here it seems, does not want to quit.
A week later, while working in Phnom Penh, I had an opportunity to visit the “Killing Fields” located just outside the city. As tourist attractions go this is not the most fun way to spend a day but is something that all visitors should see. I’m embarrassed to say Cambodia’s dark history is not something I was keenly aware of and I’m not sure why it was never taught in school. At the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979 Cambodia’s people endured one of the worst genocides in recent history. This egregious campaign wiped out at least one quarter of the population and these “fields” are where most of those lives were extinguished. It was an emotional day and an experience that I will never forget. On the short ride back to this now modern and rapidly growing city it is hard to believe that less than 40 years ago it was in complete ruin. It reminds me of that coral reef off the coast. Amid wholesale destruction life has found a way to hold on. Although there is a long road to travel, it is clear that Cambodia has a prosperous future ahead.